Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gardening a Forest

I grew up (mostly) in an old farmhouse in Delaware. The three foot thick stone walls that make up the core of the house are probably 200+ years old, and from the basement, you can see that the main floor is supported by whole, rough-hewn tree trunks. The farmland was bought up and developed before I was born, but field stone walls and small building foundations are still present, scattered in the surrounding acres of private and state land.

Mirroring a century-long trend that has occurred throughout the Eastern U.S., the original farm was abandoned and now-maturing secondary forests grew up in its place. The U.S. now has more forest than anytime since European colonies were established.

The forest on and around my parents' property is in decline. The suburbanites have been neatening up the woodlots that snake between all their plots, cutting down ugly and dangerous trees and preventing the re-establishment of many seedlings. Many of the largest trees are falling now. The pro arborists say the giant boulders half-hidden in the soil compromise the trees' hold, and I imagine the loss of their neighbors increases windthrow.

Woodlots are great for anyone with more than about a quarter acre of land because they look nice with almost no maintenance. Lose too many trees, however, and the sunlight brings up chest-high weeds and brambles and you'll have to fight them every month until new trees establish a canopy or you give up and plant a lawn. I pointed out to my parents that one corner of their yard was a few trees away from being in this position - and if they wanted to keep a forest there, they'd better get a bunch of seedlings established right away - especially since this rocky, sloped corner will dry out fast when the sun starts hitting it.

Luckily, the remaining giant trees in the neighborhood litter their yard with seeds and there are oak, hickory, maple and tulip tree seedlings everywhere. Thankfully, the long-term scourge of Alianthus is pretty much gone. Surprisingly, there don't seem to be any beech despite the extent to which they dominate the local forests. When I'm home in the summer, I'll walk my dad around the yard so he can tag the nice seedlings for transplant into the remaining woodlot.

I'm very enthused about tulip trees (Liriodendron) right now. It's a nice native tree in the magnolia family that's strong, tall and grows absurdly fast. That picture shows a tree that's just a few years old! My dad transplanted it there as a tiny seedling maybe four years ago and it's already several inches dbh. Thankfully the deer don't obliterate them either, so he's been able to move a bunch more into the open spots, along with some slower-growing oaks and hickories.

With a little luck, they'll be well on their way to closing the canopy before the remaining old trees finally rot out.


  1. I've gotten excited about Liriodendron recently, too (there's one kind of close to our house, and it had blooms all over it not too long ago, which got my attention). We were discussing maybe getting one for our yard, but I saw lots of stuff on-line saying that they were kind of weak, prone to dropping pieces in high winds and occasionally even uprooting themselves. Plus lots of people complain about them harboring aphids and dripping lots of nectar when the flowers are blooming. So that kind of cooled me on them. Are they, in fact, as bad as all that?

  2. I don't really know...

    They're a quick-growing pioneer species so they're not gonna be the strongest, most long-lived tree but I think a lot of those comments may be situation-dependent. When I was young we had a number of extremely tall, spindly sassafras trees (another pioneer species) that survived being bent hard by thunderstorms for years. Their boles remained strong even after they were dead until my parents took them down.

    As far as dripping honeydew, I haven't spent time around them in ornamental plantings, but that might be regional too. Everyone loves oak trees, but they drop small twigs profusely and up here in NY (but not in other places I've lived), they're literally dripping with tent caterpillars.

    If I were you, I'd just check out how they behave in your town or check out the websites of your local state universities - a lot of them publish online info on recommended plants to use in their regions.

    Even if they do get weak when they get old, that won't be for 30 or 40 years, which may or may not be relevant for you...

  3. I looked around some and found this site that has lots of links to government write-ups on tulip trees:

    this link most specifically addresses your questions:

    I think if you plant it in a site that's appropriate for tulip trees you ought to be set, but I'd be interested to hear what you decide to do.

  4. I love tulip trees - they grow quite well in the UK as an ornamental although I've never seen a seedling. I finally managed to get a reasonable picture of a flower last weekend. Is it what they call "yellow poplar"?



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